The Importance of Asceticism to Prayer

The feastday of St Teresa of Avila has sent my mind wandering down slightly different channels today. There is so much I could write about her, but I know others will do so better. For today, I’d like to offer a single thought: the importance of asceticism to prayer.

Asceticism isn’t fashionable, and I suspect it never really was; but we live in a society where the idea of ‘having it all’ has become commonplace, even in the Church. We can be ‘monastics’ without taking on the disciplines of monasticism; we can be great contemplatives without accepting the renunciations implicit in an ascetical way of life. That would have seemed absurd to Teresa.

The Greek roots of the word asceticism link us to the idea of monasticism and exercise. How much Greek Benedict knew is debatable, but he talks of training in monastic life being a form of exercise. We are exercised in virtue, so to say; we are exercised in obedience. All the other disciplines of monastic life — the regular prayer, the fasting, the renunciation of private ownership, single chastity — are ordered to one end only: the seeking of God; and God is the goal of all true asceticism.

St Teresa’s reform of the Carmelite Order tends to be seen as secondary to her great works on prayer, but perhaps the great works on prayer could not have been written without the underpinning of Carmelite observance. Still today Carmelite nuns are known for their cheerfulness and their ascetical fervour. We can all learn from them.